Today, my son got his report card from our online school. Most of us are used to an “A-F” grading system, but this school used “M” for mastery as their highest grade. Included in the idea of mastery is that he fully understood the topics at hand and worked at them until perfect (or very close). A student couldn’t move on to the next course until he mastered the previous one.
We completed the basic requirements plus a little bit more, so my son got straight M’s. Sounds like a hum, I guess—”Mmmmm….” A happy sound, for sure.
Can you imagine what our Christian education in our churches would look like if we taught the Christian faith to mastery?
Actually, I can. And I don’t understand why we don’t teach the principles of the faith that way.
I graduated from Wheaton College in 1992 with a degree in Christian Education. My profs were some of the smartest and most innovative guys to tackle that subject who ever walked the face of the planet, but we never talked about teaching the faith to mastery.
I believe part of the problem comes from an unwritten rule in too many of our churches that we can’t make people hew to a certain standard against their wills. Nor do we want to make distinctions between successful disciples and unsuccessful ones. In some ways, Christian education in American churches resembles a politically-correct version of Little League, where—despite how many runs one team scores—every game is played to a tie and everyone wins.
But that’s a lie. Unfortunately, we believe it to the core of our educational processes in the American Church and its damning all of us to a lowest common denominator belief. Any off-handed perusal of any of the Barna Group’s stats on discipleship and belief in this country should show us how corroded simple knowledge of the Faith has become.
It didn’t used to be that way, though. A couple hundred years ago, even the rankest sinner in a church could give you an acceptable outline of the tenets of Christianity. Most people could recite a basic systematic theology, even if they weren’t regular attenders.
Contrast this with today. I once offered to teach a basic theology course (though I was told I couldn’t use the word theology in the course title—too off-putting, too high and mighty) at a large, fast-growing church I attended. The class was one of about a half-dozen offered on Wednesday night.
Though new converts comprised a healthy portion of the church, only five people attended my class. The vast, vast majority went to the associate pastor’s teaching on how to maximize the power of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. Me, I started off with more elementary teachings like “Who is God? What is He like?”
So we tramped through ten weeks of courses about the basic tenets of Christianity, and though all the students came up to me after class and told me how much they appreciated learning the basics and my gentle way of teaching them, I finished that course with one student left. The others had drifted into the “Walking in the Power of the Holy Spirit” class.
As the last class ended, I remarked to my lone remaining student that I’d not seen her in church before. That’s when she told me she didn’t even attend this church. She went to another church nearby. She’d visited once, saw the class offered, and thought it a good idea.
Great for her, but I’ll tell you, I was beating my breast when she walked out of the classroom.
I look back at that class and I see the microcosm of the problem. We’ve got nothing in place to teach to mastery. We encourage people to jump into topics they can’t handle because we “sexy” up those teachings. It’s the age old story of handing someone a Bible and them saying, “Cool. When are we going to study Revelation? All that Armageddon stuff rocks!”
Is it any wonder that people aren’t growing in our churches? How can they when there’s no comprehensive, cradle-to-grave educational strategy? (What church anymore even has a Christian Education Director?) We can’t begin to talk about mastery because we can’t get the basics into people in a coherent fashion.
In many churches, the bulk of educating adults falls on small groups. I’ve written on this before, but small groups are a terrible way to educate adults. They can be fantastic for relationship building, group worship, and group prayer, but they’re lousy for actually instilling the principles of Christ’s teachings. Most small group leaders themselves can’t articulate a systematic theology, so how can they teach one? This leaves the most educated teachers in the churches, the pastors, out of the educational equation because they’re typically teaching “Gospel-lite” in the Sunday messages so as not to put off the “Seekers.” That’s totally backward.
Before we can begin to teach the tenets of Christianity in our churches, we need to rectify this lack and put a comprehensive educational strategy in place. We need to
- Identify gifted teachers in our churches.
- Ensure those teachers know the Faith enough to teach it. (Pastors, this is your primary audience for teaching, your identified teachers within the congregation.)
- Create a cradle-to-grave educational strategy that teaches an age-appropriate overview of Christianity’s principles “from milk to meat.”
- Weekly teach that strategy so that all ages within the church receive the same basic teaching. This allows parents to know what their children learned because they received the same age-appropriate teaching.
- Teach to mastery. People don’t move onto the next class unless they can show mastery of the material. This method may mean that primary teaching occurs in classes rather than from the sermon messages, but it ensures people get the basics before they move on. And yes, people will need to prove they know and practice the material.
- Stress that everyone in the church must participate in the classes as part of his or her membership/affiliation with the church. No one opts out if they wish to receive the benefits of the church Body as a whole. This expectation must be hammered home till it sinks into every person who crosses the threshold of the church building.
Let’s also understand that mere academics and head knowledge aren’t going to cut it. People must be able to combine knowledge with praxis if they’re to prove themselves able disciples.
One of the most intriguing trends in seminaries is the idea that academics cannot trump servanthood. I believe this is a sea change concept that bodes well for the Church in the future. Honestly, what good is a pastor or bishop who may be able to parse every Greek verb known, but who can’t (or won’t) wash the feet of the folks he’s called to serve? So the pastoral intern can tell you the finer points of distinction between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism, but doesn’t that all go out the window if he has a basic contempt for those who don’t?
Some seminaries now require that their students participate in programs geared to evaluating a student’ s ability to serve humbly. Group living practices that serve as testing communities emphasize this new desire to turn out men and women who not only know the material, but live it day in and day out. Kudos for those seminaries who get it! They understand that mastery means developing servants, not academicians.
The final cog in the mastery machine may prove the most difficult to implement, but we must.
No true mastery of the faith exists apart from committed community. Examples of how to live like Christ absolutely require that we be intimately involved in each other’s lives. For growing in Christ must mean that we see each other growing, that we meet together more than one or two days a week, that we see learning as surrounding ourselves with those who get it and live it. It means those with the most finely honed minds and spirits find ways to break the Church out of the hellish culture we’ve wrapped ourselves in, the culture that separates us rather than binds us together. That means rethinking how we work, play, and live in a way that makes community a priority. There can be no shortcuts around community if we wish to achieve mastery.
Jesus is our Master. If we are to be like Him, shouldn’t we be methodically growing into His fullness? How will we if we don’t teach to mastery?